As a young MTV reporter rubbing shoulders with the music industry’s biggest celebrities, Kristiane Backer was living the dream. She had it all – money, fame and success. She was invited to the most glamourous parties, she was recognised everywhere and was flying all around the world meeting famous rockstars. Yet she admits she felt a huge void in her life at the time. She felt lost and confused. She was desperate for a real connection and spiritual fulfilment. Following a chance encounter with the athlete Imran Khan, who encouraged her to challenge the stereotypes she held about Muslims, Kristiane began looking into Islam.
Kristiane Backer travelled to various Muslim countries, spoke to Muslims and fell in love with the simple and peaceful message of Islam and converted. Her public conversion to Islam, however, didn’t run smoothly. As well as ending her TV career and putting a strain on her relationship with her family, the press accused her of ‘losing the plot and supporting terrorism’. To help tackle this Islamophobia, Kristiane wrote From MTV to Mecca – How Islam Inspired My Life, and she now uses her media skills to promote the beauty and diversity of Islam.
Arwa Aburawa: Your conversion to Islam occurred slowly over a three year period following a lot of reading, travelling and debating. Can you tell us how Islam’s green principles influenced you?
Kristiane Backer: I think part of what drew me to Islam was its teaching about preserving nature and being kind to animals. I was in Pakistan with Imran Khan [the famous Pakistani cricketer and politician] observing the way the shepherds cared for their animals and would bring them home at Maghrib time [sunset]. They were so close to nature in the countryside in Pakistan, and it’s probably the same in other places. When they have surplus, they share it with their neighbours, and they don’t think about giving their animals hormones so that they can mass produce and become rich and hoard things. That’s another important thing; to live in harmony with nature and not squeeze every last drop that we can, the way we do with animals. I observed it in Pakistan and it really appealed to me how people live in the countryside in harmony with their animals. And this is totally founded on Islam as those are the Islamic teachings.
AA: Was this the first time you had thought about environmental issues or was it just the first time you had thought about it in spiritual terms?
KB: I think it started in Germany actually, when I was a child. Germany established the Green Party so it’s always been influential, and I’ve always loved nature. Even as a child, I went on holidays to farms, and I loved to spend time by the sea and being in nature. It also hurts when you see nature being destroyed around you. Of course, when I looked into Islamic teachings it was also founded on Islam. You hear so many sayings of the Prophet (SAW) about not wasting resources and in the Qur’an, it says God does not like the wasters. The Prophet also said not to waste water, even when you are next to a running stream when he explained about wudhu. There are so many references and so it’s inherent in our faith that we protect God’s creations. We are vicegerents of nature and have a duty to protect it.
AA: Despite these green principles in Islam, it is not always the case that Muslims are the most environmentally-friendly people. Do you think that this is a problem?
KB: Yes. When I went to Qatar a couple of years ago, I was shocked as I saw all these skyscrapers lit up at night even though they are completely empty. It is so blatantly contradictory to God’s teachings and acting against what we need to do. You may have the resources now but it’s not just your resources, it’s for the whole world, and we all need to think about the future. We know we have an energy crisis with prices going up so it’s utterly selfish and disrespectful to our teachings and to Islam to act like that and to be such wasters.
AA: Over the last couple of years, there has been a growing awareness amongst Muslims about green issues, but change is clearly happening too slowly. What do you think Muslims need to do to address this?
KB: There has been talk about environmental issues amongst Muslims and also plans to make Hajj green, but I think we need to teach this aspect of our faith. We need to bring our faith more into the modern context generally and talk about environmental issues and the environmental crisis and how our faith gives us all the answers. I think the world has lost its awareness of the sacred and the recognition that what is all around us is from God and therefore it belongs to God, so to just selfishly destroy everything with a short-term vision is just going to make it worse for future generations. I don’t know if Muslims are seeing that, especially in the Middle East, but perhaps Muslims in the West are actually seeing that link more clearly.
I remember I once gave a talk about this issue and a couple of years later, a lady that was in the audience came to me and said “What you said about not wasting our resources really made sense.” She told me that since then, she’s taken small steps in her everyday life to save energy and think about the environment, which I thought was great. So I think it is a message that Muslims are open to, but it’s important to make the message manageable and give people practical steps they can take.
AA: I completely agree that tackling issues like environmental degradation and climate change can be really overwhelming, and so empowering people with practical advice is really important. What are some of the practical steps you take in your everyday life?
KB: Well, I always switch the lights off when I’m not using them, I recycle and make sure I only boil as much water as I need. Even when I stay at hotels and all the lights are left on, I make sure I switch them all off before I leave. I struggle to eat locally here in London as we don’t have farmers markets like we do in Germany. In the city we have lost our connection with nature which is a real shame. But all these things are part of our inner jihad really – our struggle to be the best person we can be. We strive in the way of God and so striving to protect the environment is part of our inner jihad.
Laura El Alam interviews Muslim families in Southern California who share several inspirational and eco-friendly tips.
Thanks to Klaudia Khan and Nadia Tariq for compiling the works of these great individuals and organisations.
Arwa Aburawa is a freelance journalist based in the UK with a special interest in environmental issues and the Muslim world. She is also the Eco-Islam editor at GreenProphet.com which is the leading news site on green issues in the Middle East. You can see more of her work at arwafreelance.com